Fun at Cheburechnaya, a Bukharan Jewish Restaurant

Shurpa soup in a bowl - there are vegetables, herbs, meat, and broth

Hanukkah is not my favorite holiday, but to mark the holiday, I thought I would talk about one of my better fried food experiences recently. It was at one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Cheburechnaya, which serves Bukharan Jewish cuisine from Uzbekistan.

“There are Jews in Uzbekistan?” one may ask. Indeed, there is a Jewish community, based largely in the city of Bukhara – hence the name Bukharan Jews. Jews migrated to Central Asia from Persia in antiquity with their religion and the Persian language, which Bukharan Jews call Bukhori. Jews lived in various conditions under Muslim rule for six hundred years, and then Russian rule from 1876 to 1991. Jews were in Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, and in Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan.  The cuisine and culture of Bukharan Jews is particularly distinct among Jewish communities, both for its Persian-based language and for its frequent use of meat. Most Bukharan Jews left during the Soviet years, and settled in Tel Aviv and New York, where the Forest Hills and Rego Park neighborhoods have large Bukharan communities. Several Bukharan restaurants are found in these neighborhoods, which serve a mix of Central Asian food and Russian dishes picked up during the century of Russian rule. Though strictly kosher and owned by Jews, many Muslim Uzbeks work at these restaurants.

Exterior of Cheburechnaya
(Photo Kate S. on Yelp)

These Bukharan restaurants have a cult following among many non-Bukharan Jews in New York, for the delicious food and their general affordability and good service. (The latter two are unfortunately rare among kosher restaurants in New York.) In addition, many Russian Jewish immigrants come for a taste of home. Central Asian food, including shashlik (kebabs), chebureki (triangular fried pastries), and samsa/samcy (triangular filled buns), became popular throughout the Soviet Union after World War II, and for many Russian Jews “going out for Central Asian” is the equivalent of the American “going out for Chinese.” The menus at Bukharan restaurants are uniformly bilingual in English and Russian.

Traditional Bukharan Jewish food, like all Central Asian food, is meat heavy. There is meat in the soup, meat in the pastries, meat in the rice, and meat generally everywhere. (Vegetarianism is, to say the least, uncommon.) Historically the Jews of Bukhara and Samarkand were one of the few Jewish communities that regularly consumed meat – not just because it was plentiful and cheap, but also because the Jewish community had a regularly available supply of cattle, sheep, and poultry. This matches the generally meat-based diet of the surrounding region, which is desert and not particularly given to vegetable agriculture. It should be noted that this was both unusual for Jewish communities, which reserved meat for more special occasions, and also usual in that this was eating what the neighbors did.

Cheburechnaya is located near the center of Rego Park, on an unassuming side street in Queens. It is close to other Jewish businesses, including two other Bukharan restaurants, a kosher butcher, a kosher supermarket, and a number of other kosher restaurants. Russian, Bukhori, and Hebrew can be heard along the street – alongside Chinese, Spanish, Uzbek, and Arabic. The crowd is a hearty mix: there are Bukharans and Russians, the traditional clientele, along with observant Jews from all over the New York area and foodies from all traditions. At one table, you might have a Bukharan family going out; at another table, some Ashkenazi “bros” reminiscing about their exploits in their college AEPi; at a third, a nerdy civil servant and his friends. Few restaurants in New York, in my experience, are as fun for people-watching.

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This is a cheburek, which is a deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat. It’s incredibly luscious, and the dill often placed in the meat filling provides a lovely balance both to the meat and the heavy fried dough surrounding it. Chebureks are common across the Former Soviet Union, and are especially popular among Tatars. The pastry has a Turkish origin.

 

Here are three soups: shurpa, lagman, and pelmeni. Shurpa is the traditional vegetable-and-meat soup – it has hearty root vegetables and a big chunk of meat inside! Shurpa comes from the common Turkic word for soups – in Turkish, soup is çorba. Shurpa is delicious. Lagman comes from the other direction, and is a derivative of the Chinese lamian. The Bukharan Jewish version involves noodles in a savory, tomato- and cilantro-laden broth with chunks of beef giving the soup body and a wonderful heartiness. The Forward once rated lagman the best Jewish soup. The last one is the Russian pelmeni, soup with dumplings. Thanks to two centuries of colonization, many parts of Bukharan cuisine and Central Asian food generally are Russian-influenced. The dumplings, however, are derived from those made in Central Asia, where they are called manti.

 

Here is plov, a rice-and-meat pilaf that makes up for the bulk of Bukharan Jewish festive cuisine. This one is a green plov cooked with many types of herbs. A wide range of plov varieties and recipes exist – I particularly like this sweetish recipe. We also had some meat kebabs, or shashlik, which are also traditional. They were delicious.

Noni - stacked circular breads on platters

Here is noni, the pan-cooked bread of Uzbekistan, eaten by Jews and Muslims alike. The rounds are huge, and torn and shared. The stacks are very attractive and the bread itself is surprisingly soft and pleasant. Not all Jewish breads are like challah!

Samsa - a baked triangular bun topped with seeds
Samsa. (Photo from Uzbekistan Travel)

On past visits, I gobbled them down too quickly to take a picture, so here is another picture of samsa, a beautiful baked and sometimes fried triangular pastry filled with meat or vegetables. The samsa comes from the same origin as the samosa and the sambusak, and filled breads span from empanadas in Spain and Latin America to baozi in China. The pumpkin and meat rendition often served in Bukharan establishments is particularly delicious and irresistible, and if you have any room in your stomach I urge you to try it.

If you want to visit Cheburechnaya, it is located at 9209 63 Drive in Rego Park, Queens. They are certified kosher by an Orthodox rabbi, and closed on Shabbat.

Thank you to Amy Estersohn and Laura Macaddino for accompanying me to have fun at Cheburechnaya most recently! Thanks to Aaron Kaiser-Chen for catching a typo/mistake!

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“Yagdes!” And the Jam That They Become

Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:

“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”

That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.

Bilberry in a bush
A bilberry – the blueberry-like fruit native to Lithuania. (Photo Ilena via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat.  When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.

Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina
Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina. Breakfast of champions! (Photo mine, August 2016)

Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.

Jam on toasted bagel
Committing true New York heresy and eating my jam on a toasted bagel! (Photo mine, August 2016)

For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.

Strawberry-Blueberry Jam

makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied

 

1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed

14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3/4 cup water

  1. In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
  2. Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
  4. Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
  5. When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
  6. Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.

*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.

The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.